Thursday, March 4, 2010

An Interview with Susan VanHecke

I recently had the pleasure of reading Susan VanHecke's wonderful new books--ROCK 'N' ROLL SOLDIER: A MEMOIR, written with Dean Ellis Kohler (HarperCollins) and picture book, AN APPLE PIE FOR DINNER (Marshall Cavendish).

Rock 'N' Roll Soldier is a memoir of Dean Ellis Kohler's experience in Vietnam, serving as a military policeman. Dean Ellis Kohler had to leave a record deal behind when he was drafted and sent to Qui Nhon. But music is in Dean's soul. And so even there, in the middle of a war, Dean finds a way back to rock 'n' roll. We follow along on his journey to create a band, perform and even record an album while serving his country. The power of music allows the soldiers to escape, if just for the length of a song, from the horrors of war.

An Apple Pie for Dinner is a sweet story based on an English folktale, "The Apple Dumpling." The language is rhythmic and lends itself to being read over and over again. The story is charming, but I must warn you--reading it will make you crave apple pie.

I was grateful for the opportunity to interview this talented and busy writer. Here is what she had to say about writing memoirs, picture books, and rock 'n' roll.

DL: Susan, you did such an excellent job of giving us the immediate story of Dean Ellis Kohler's tour in Vietnam juxtaposed with the backstory. It was so easy to get into the book, and I really felt like I was there. Was this an intentional decision on your part, to weave the story together like that, or did it just happen organically?

SVH: It's so gratifying to hear that, Debby! Managing the backstory was one of the greatest challenges of writing Rock 'N' Roll Soldier. In our earliest drafts, I began with Dean at home in Portsmouth, Virginia. One version started as he was putting together his very first band. Another version opened with his landing the recording contract. Both had a lot of flashbacks to pivotal moments in his musical life – first guitar lesson, first talent show gig, etc. – as we tried to establish how important music was to him. But they just weren't working. I couldn't figure out why.

Then I read somewhere this piece of advice for launching a story: Begin with the moment when everything becomes different. For Dean, that was the moment he first laid eyes on Vietnam. His life would never again be the same. With that as my new starting point, I had a fresh trajectory for the story. Then it was simply a matter of choosing the most vital bits of backstory and finding logical, natural ways to work them in.

DL: I was incredibly impressed with the way you were able to assault us with the roughness and jarring experience of Vietnam, but also draw us in with this innocent, sweet inner voice. It was so human, so familiar. How did you work on creating that for the reader when you were writing from the perspective of a real person?

SVH: Thanks so much. Without a doubt, crafting Dean's voice was THE biggest challenge of this project. Dean's a very even-keeled, almost stoic, kind of guy, he doesn't get too emotional, doesn't give you too much. He keeps a lot on the inside. So I often had to put myself in his shoes and try to imagine how I – as a suburban teen just out of high school – would react in this strange place, doing and seeing these strange and often horrific things. Of course, I would check it all with Dean to make sure I was on the right track. But it definitely took a lot of role-playing.

Author Joyce Sweeney also gave me a great piece of advice. She suggested that every time Dean was thinking of home while he was in the war zone, I should include some kind of concrete, sensory "home" memory, like the bustle of the family breakfast table, or the sweet donut kiss with his girlfriend, or his beloved hand-me-down car or prized Gretsch guitar. I think that really helped to draw the stark contrast between the warm familiarity of home and the harsh surreality of war.

DL: How much research did you do on the Vietnam War? When you are working with the person who was actually there (in your case, Dean Ellis Kohler), can you rely on him for some of it, or does it make you feel you have to research more?

SVH: Dean was a huge help, especially since he saved a ton of artifacts from his time in Vietnam – documents, letters, photos, 8 mm film footage, audio, even the pocket calendar he used to mark off the days. He remembered so many details, and was able to talk to many of his buddies who served with him to double-check on things. But I did read as much about Vietnam as I could, especially first-hand accounts by soldiers, to get a better sense of what it must have been like. And a lot of it was truly horrifying. Even though Dean wasn't on the front lines, what he and his company experienced was troubling, to put it mildly. It's really no wonder these guys came home so emotionally damaged. It was difficult and heartbreaking research.

DL: What is the process you go through when you are working with a person to tell their story? Do you interview them or is it like a co-writing collaboration?

SVH: Rock 'N' Roll Soldier is my third co-written memoir; the writing process has been different with each project. One co-author didn't feel comfortable doing any of the writing, so I would interview him extensively by phone, transcribe the interviews, and use them to assemble the story. He would read what I'd written as we went along, and offer ideas for changes.

Another collaborator was a fabulous writer himself with a truly unique voice, so I functioned more as an editor for that book, culling the best of his material from several decades, prompting and guiding him as he wrote more, then sort of weaving all those bits together without injecting too much "me."

The third co-author didn't think he wanted to be part of the writing at first, but by the end of our extensive e-mail interviewing, he became pretty good at getting his thoughts down. I was able to lift some material directly from those e-mails.

DL: Looking at other books you've written, it is clear that you're the rock 'n' roll writer. How did you begin writing with and about rock stars?

SVH: I guess that started right after high school. I was dating the drummer in a local rock band and, being the dutiful girlfriend, wrote an article about the group for one of those entertainment weeklies every town used to have. That publication asked me to write more about music. In college in NYC, I worked at Island Records, where I started writing artist bios. When I graduated from NYU, I landed a job at a big music industry PR firm, and wrote bios and press releases and did tour press for rock bands.

When I left NYC (too darned expensive!) and returned home to southeastern Virginia, I became an arts and entertainment writer for the big daily newspaper in the area. An article I wrote on local legend Gene "Be-Bop-A-Lula" Vincent, a '50s rock pioneer, eventually became my first book, Race With The Devil (St. Martin's Press, 2000). Vincent's best pal, Eddie "Summertime Blues" Cochran, deserved a book, too, so I asked Cochran's nephew Bobby Cochran if he'd like to collaborate. That became Three Steps To Heaven (Hal Leonard, 2003). My agent thought I'd be a good choice to help rock photographer Tom Wright, also one of her clients, write his memoir, which became Roadwork: Rock 'N' Roll From The Inside Out (Hal Leonard, 2007) in the U.S. and Raising Hell On The Rock 'N' Roll Highway (Omnibus, 2009) in the U.K. And it was another article for that Virginia newspaper that put me in touch with Dean Kohler about ten years ago. His incredible Vietnam story became Rock 'N' Roll Soldier (HarperTeen, 2009).

DL: You have two books out at once, and they are so different! An Apple Pie for Dinner is an adorable picture book (which my five year old daughter has stolen and placed on her own bookshelf). How did you come up with the concept for this book?

SVH: It actually grew out of a writing exercise. When I first decided I'd like to write for children a few years ago, I knew I'd need to tone down my tendency to overwrite. So I took some of my favorite folktales from childhood and reinterpreted them, writing very simply and concisely. It's surprising how difficult that can be! I remembered the cumulative English folktale The Apple Dumpling, made a few changes, and gave it a go. Marshall Cavendish picked it up as an easy reader for autumn. Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would actually become a picture book!

DL: What was it like to see the artwork for An Apple Pie? Did you like it? Waiting to see cover art is so nervewracking, I can't even imagine what it would be like the first time you see the artwork that represents your story.

SVH: When my editor told me that they'd chosen 3-D fabric artist Carol Baicker-McKee to illustrate the book, I thought it was a brilliant decision. Her work is stunning – so tactile and warm. Just perfect for this fun folktale. The hard part was the waiting – seems authors are always waiting! I did get to see Carol's preliminary sketches early on, which was very exciting. But creating that incredibly detailed artwork was so labor-intensive that Carol, understandably, needed extra time. Our Fall '08 book became a Fall '09 book. But, wow, it was definitely worth the wait. When I got the page proofs with the final artwork I was amazed and delighted! I showed everyone I could!

DL: I was wondering how you compare the publishing process between your picture book and your memoir? What about your own promotion for the books. Has it been easier to promote one than the other?

SVH: The process for An Apple Pie For Dinner went much faster. I'd already made all the revisions my editor had requested before I was even offered the contract. So once the manuscript was acquired, there really wasn't much more for me to do. Rock 'N' Roll Soldier, on the other hand, was sold from a proposal and sample chapters; I had no manuscript. And the initial manuscript I submitted was a total failure – a devastating first for me. But my editor kindly gave me a second chance. I hired a pair of well-credentialed book coaches to keep me on track, started from scratch, and, thankfully, that manuscript was accepted. There were several rounds of revisions after that, as well, so that Fall '08 title also became a Fall '09-er.

As for promotion, Rock 'N' Roll Soldier has so many more story angles to pitch to all sorts of media. Beyond the kidlit market, we're starting to get traction with media for grown-ups, i.e. music, war history, and veterans' publications. Dean's done some interviews on classic rock radio, even college newspapers have done feature stories. An Apple Pie For Dinner has been a harder sell to mainstream media, probably because as a picture book it has a fairly limited readership.

For both books, I've created dedicated websites. At, you can find downloadable pie-related children's activities, fun pie facts, a classroom guide, plus video (including a pie-baking how-to) and original music created especially for the book. If you visit, you can peruse an archive of Dean's photos, film footage, and audio from his Vietnam experience. It's pretty rare that you can actually see and hear the characters in a book that you're reading – we think it really helps lift the story from the page.

DL: With a memoir and picture book out this year, what's next for you?

SVH: I have a nonfiction for middle-graders pubbing in the fall from Boyds Mills Press, an imprint of Highlights for Children magazine. Strike Up The Band! Amazing American Instrument Makers From Ragtime To Rock traces the history and cultural impact of musical instrument makers like Steinway, Ludwig, Fender, Hammond, Moog, and more. I researched and collected more than 600 photos, many rare and vintage, to accompany the text, so it was quite an involved project. All of the companies profiled were just wonderful, opening up their archives to me. I can't wait for this one to come out – it's a lot of fun!

I'm also finishing up two more middle-grade nonfiction proposals, and hope to get back to work on an historical fiction I've started about the Underground Railroad that's tied to my family tree. There's other stuff, too – I like to keep many projects going simultaneously. I just wish there were more hours in a day!

Thank you, Susan, for taking the time to chat with me!

For more information about Susan VanHecke, visit her websites--

To win a copy of Rock 'N' Roll Soldier, leave a comment below by February 12, 2010. The winner will be selected randomly from all comments posted.

Have a beautiful day!



  1. Great interview! Susan the book sounds wonderful - and a good picture into a period that doesn't receive much attention in YA.


  2. Hi Donna! What a coincidence – my 9 year old just finished your SECRETS OF THE CHEESE SYNDICATE over the weekend and loved it! Thanks for your interest in RnR SOLDIER!